This Week in Travel – April 22, 2011

Backpacking the Axis of Evil:  Forget Eurail passes.  This author finds a train from Istanbul to Tehran.

Taking a shower at 37,000 feet: What it’s like to enjoy all the amenities available on the Emirates A380.

Delta introduces real-time bag tracking: Worried about whether your bag made the flight?  Now you can track it online.

Southwest-Airtran Merger won’t be complete until 2013: Looks like they’ll be taking their sweet time for a while.

It’s High Speed Rail and I’m Mad As Hell: An interesting look at the political opposition to high-speed rail in the US

How Airlines Set Fares, and Why They Change So Often:  A detailed analysis of airline seat pricing.

Johnny Jet on Packing Light: Some great tips on packing with only a carryon.

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Maldives – Keeping Locals and Travelers Separated

In a couple of weeks, Kelly and I leave for a week of rest and relaxation in the Maldives.  The Maldives are a chain of over 1,100 islands located in the Indian ocean, south of Sri Lanka and India.  These islands are small and spread out–the territory of the Maldives spans over 35,000 square miles, making the Maldives one of the most dispersed countries on the planet.  Only 200 of these islands are inhabited.

The government of the Maldives has made a deliberate attempt to ensure that the inhabited islands fall into two separate categories: “local” islands, and “resort” islands.  Tourists are welcome, but only on the resort islands: you need government approval to journey to an island containing a local village.  Thus, the islands inhabited by citizens of the Maldives maintain their local culture and tradition, and are not overrun by sunworshipping tourists from abroad.  Additionally, as Islam is the country’s primary religion, the islanders are spared from skimpy bathing suits and alcoholic boat drinks.

Thus, each resort has its own island that it occupies exclusively.  Great for everything being all-inclusive and safe, but bad for prices, and really bad for getting any sort of local feel.  It’s virtually impossible to “island hop” like you would in the Caribbean, so many visitors never make it beyond the capital city of Male and their own resort island.

So the Maldives strikes a balance between opening itself up to tourism and the revenues that entails, yet avoiding overdevelopment and culture clash.  Does it work?  Maybe.  Part of the appeal of travel is seeing a culture different than your own, eating in new restaurants, and meeting new people.  On the other hand, too many places in this world have been overrun by the tourism trade, especially in those places where the dirt meets the sea.  Plenty of people are coming to the Maldives, so it must be doing fine.

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Top 5 Monday: Stretch your travel budget

Whether it’s a double-dip recession, recovery mode, or the burst-bubble effect, we can probably all agree that the dollars, yen, euros, pesos, or baht aren’t flowing as freely as they might have before. In these extra-stingy times, how can travel junkies like us CCC-ers still get our fix? In addition to stretching the company dime, I enjoy reading the plentiful tips and suggestions provided by all of the other travel writers and bloggers out there (some of our favorites are Rick Steves and Gadling). By now, most of us know to travel in the off-season and stay in smaller B&B’s or inns. But after reading and following all of that advice, if you want to take a trip, you still have to bite the bullet and budget for the extra expenses. Outside of the obvious and already-explored tips, here are my top five ways to stretch your (already thin) travel budget:

1. Where to go: Consider off-the-beaten-road alternate destinations

Sometimes we want to go where we want to go, and that’s that. But if you’re more flexible, often there are alternatives that can provide similar experiences for less moolah. Interested in the culture and history of a European Grand Tour? Consider stops in the Czech Republic, Poland, and other Eastern European gems for the same rich history and cultural significance without the overcrowded and overpriced tourist business. Looking for an exotic Thailand getaway? Vietnam has nice beaches, friendly people, and requires less dong for your dollar. Itching for a rockin’ Rio weekend? Colombia is a budget-friendly South American location with the beaches, landscape, and culture of Brazil all only a cheap two hour flight from southern Florida.

2. Getting there: Web 2.0 it up and check out the internets

When it comes to airfare, getting a good deal often comes down to patience, perserverance, and a little bit of luck. An interesting new trend for the internet-savvy among you, is that many airlines are now offering special deals through social media outlets like the Twitters. Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue and Ryan Air are just a few of the latest I’ve seen to offer exclusive deals to Twitter followers. So if you’re brave enough, join the Miley Cyrus’s and Charlie Sheen’s and you could score some sweet airfare deals (and ahem, follow us).

3. Once you’re there: Utilize base cities to save on hotel costs

If you’re planning a multi-city or multi-country trip, moving from city to city every day can be not only tiring but also a strain on your wallet. Most hotels, inns, B&B’s, hostels, and camp sites all offer better rates if you stay more than 1 or 2 nights. Also, if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of gal like me, you can often find better deals by waiting until you arrive to book your accommodation. The local scoop from a tourist information booth or train station can sometimes be a bigger help than your computer.

4. Once you’re there: Eat like a local

There’s no reason that you have to choose between eating out at a nice restaurant or starving while you’re on vacation. Take a cue from the locals and pretend like you’re at home. One of my favorite ways to spend a day in Europe is starting at a local grocery store or market. Pick up what you need for a quick breakfast and picnic lunch, and you’ve probably gotten two meals for the price of one. If you’re utilizing tip #3 and staying in the same place for a few days, you can even stock up and store some fixin’s in your hotel room.

5. What to do once you’re there: Pick up a local publication for inside deals

Planning activities in a new city can sometimes make the costs add up – those who operate the major tourist destinations quickly figured out that lots of money could be made charging people to climb up stairs or an elevator to the top of any building, bridge, or monument. Many museums are free or cheap, and can provide an afternoon or two of affordable entertainment. But local guides available in most train stations, airports or news stands also usually have more information on special events that are taking place or coupons for good deals. Cities in the U.S. have thesee guides (like TimeOut, etc.) and just about any tourist destination has them too, so take a look around at the newspapers littering the train!

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Himalayan around

With all this talk of travel and helpful tips and such, it is always nice when we can actually add a new country to our quest.  In February, I had just such an opportunity and visited the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal for the first time.  With only 48 hours in Kathmandu, this wasn’t to be a “find yourself in the mountains” type of trip, but I was determined to make the most of it.

My home base was the Hotel Annapurna in downtown Kathmandu.  The location is the absolute best attribute of the hotel, but one of my favorites was also the physical key that opened my room (instead of the ever-present swipe card).  From my hotel I set out and spend about a day and a half walking around.  Since I was traveling alone and hate to carry bulky guidebooks, I tried out a new method of getting my bearings – the “Kathmandu Walking Tours” application for my iPhone.  Yep, there’s an app for that!  For $3.99 I got city maps with themed routes for walking the entire city, including the temples, prime shopping areas, historical or government buildings, museums, and other sights.  There wasn’t a lot of background information in the app, but that’s what reading ahead is for, and the maps worked without wifi so I was a happy traveler.

Temples in Durbar Square

Using the walking tours as a loose guide, I wandered through just about all the major tourist sites, including “Freak Street” (not quite so freaky anymore, unfortunately), Durbar Square, and a lot of temples whose names were not as memorable as their collective grandeur.  By far my favorite time, though, was getting lost through the winding alleys of Indra Chowk, the largest street market in Kathmandu.

Street markets anywhere are an excellent location for sampling the local flavor – including everything from sights and smells to people-watching and cultural curiosity.  Indra Chowk is one of the best I’ve come across, with narrow pathways clogged with pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, and the occasional animal, the shops can sometimes seem like they’re closing in on the shoppers.  The maze-like market stretches through a good portion of the city, and connects seamlessly with other markets so that I’m not even sure how much of the area I walked was actually Indra Chowk.  While passing though I became part of the audience of some sort of musical procession or parade, nearly escaped death by motorbike more than once, and glimpsed more than one Westerner trying (but failing) to pull off the traditional Nepalese dhaka topi. 

Indra Chowk

While the city of Kathmandu is great, and surprisingly calm for all of the pollution, traffic, and congestion of a developing country capital, the Nepalese countryside and hilltop views draw most tourists out of the city fairly quickly.  On my limited schedule, I opted for a half-day jaunt out to Dhulikhel, a tiny hilltop village and traditional stopping point for many hardcore trekkers.  I had a driver take me out to the village in a car, and after he dropped me off in the center I started wandering again.  My timing was not perfect for breathtaking Himalayan views (the weather was rather overcast), but it was still a sight to behold.  The village itself was a great sampling of Nepalese country life.  On my 3 hour walk around the area, I barely passed any other people.  I discovered the reason for this after passing a school – what had to be the entire population of Dhulikhel was watching a children’s football match.

Giant statue of Lord Shiva and the countryside near Dhulikhel

After this brief intro, I think next time I’ll attempt a trek in the real mountains.  Although I’d probably trip over my shoelaces before making it to the first base camp.

Oh, and the daal was phenomenal.

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The Indian Experience, part 7 or 8

 Uh, hey there.  Although we’re starting off slow, 2011 is actually shaping up to be a great year for CCC, so bear with us and stay tuned for more great stuff!

What 12 flights in 14 days looks like

As mentioned in a previous post, my passport’s first action in 2011 was for a whirlwind two week trip to India and Nepal.  The trip was a first for many reasons – first time in two new Indian cities, first time taking a trip with more air segments than you can count on one hand (or maybe two), and first time in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.  As usual during my work trips to India, I tried to make time for at least one new and exciting adventure in each city.  Here are some highlights from 12 days and 4 cities in India:

  • Bangalore – With a whole day free of work obligations, and an old friend/former colleague in the “San Diego of India”, I was looking forward to some new sights.  We ended up taking a three-hour car ride out of Bangalore to the ancient palace at Mysore.  Conclusion: Mysore = Indian Disney

Main Street...er, entrance to Mysore Palace

  •  Hyderabad – I spent a few days in the city by the lake in 2009 and saw the major tourist sights, but this stay was a brief 24 hours.  The highlight of Hyderabad is definitely the billboards, though.  It was tough to snap pictures as the car whizzed by in traffic, but throughout the city I spotted a sign advertising a Bryan Adams Indian tour as “the greatest singalong concert of all time” (it could be true), one for a Bollywood movie made by Disney (who knew?), and a sign for a public toilet that was handpainted on a piece of wood and said “P & P Toilet Ltd.”  Maybe I’m the only one that chuckles over a toilet operated by “P & P”, but I would be surprised.
  • Pune – Again, only 24 hours in the city, but I was intrigued by the description the locals gave me as one of the most beautiful places in India.  I’m sure people from every region will be quick to tell a visitor why their home is one of the most beautiful, but this story was actually corroborated by others in various cities.  Something to consider for a future trip, perhaps.
  • New Delhi – On a free afternoon in Delhi, I took the opportunity to go on a brand new adventure riding the Delhi metro.  I was so pleasantly surprised that this is my new favorite recommendation for anyone planning travel to Delhi.  The trains are air-conditioned and clean, the system is well-run and makes sense, and a day pass is very affordable even by Indian standards.  In a city that can sometimes feel overwhelming to a pedestrian, the metro can be a welcome underground haven from the traffic, noise, and pollution above.  By far the best part, and I’m immediately submitting this to the major transportation authorities in the U.S., is that every train on the Delhi metro has a special car at the front reserved for Ladies Only.  I can take a breather from the Indian heat, get where I want to go, and be free from gawkers/gropers/heavy crowds?  Sign me up!

Helpful/pretty signs guide the way to the best part of the Delhi metro

  • Ahmedabad – Interestingly, the entire state is dry.  Alcohol is heavily taxed throughout India, but as far as I know, the state of Gujarat is the only place it’s banned outright.  Something to keep in mind in case you’re planning on partying hard.

More to come on Nepal…

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Why the show, the Bachelor is a guilty pleasure of mine

I know you guys are going to publicly flog me for writing about this show on our blog, but I’m going to do it anyway.  I love the show, the Bachelor, which airs on ABC.  As you can guess, one of my favorite aspects of the show is the traveling.  I have to hand it to them, they go to some freakin awesome places.  Last season, I was pretty annoyed with Ali, but I kept glued to the show because I was curious where they would go next, and it never disappointed.  Not only are these people boosting their acting careers, (this season’s Michelle even has an IMDB page), but they get to go on these dream vacations on top of it.  Last season they got to go to Turkey (so jealous) and Bora Bora, among other stops.  This season they are going to Costa Rica, Anguilla, and South Africa.  Come on now! 

And not only do they go to cool places, but they do amazing stuff when they get there.  They repel down a waterfall, or spend the day on their own island.  No wonder these people break up once they get back to their normal lives…..3 weeks prior he was taking her on a $10,000 shopping trip and then whisking her on a helicopter ride through a jungle and then wine and dines her at a table surrounded by hot springs and palm trees. 

Can you believe there are even travel agents that focus on trips that were featured on the show?  What a great niche.  You know anywhere you go will be over the top romantic.  I would love to be a travel agent where I focused on these awesome, once in a lifetime trips!

And although I think the girls are all too good for this Brad character (as I usually do with the schmuck they have on the show), and if they met him in a normal setting, most of them (I’m looking at you Emily) wouldn’t give him the time of day,  the trips are definitely a good incentive to stay in the game as long as possible.  And I’m right there watching it and excited about where they’ll go next.

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Downton Abbey – A short review

Downton Abbey

Ok, so Downton Abbey isn’t a real place, but neither was Pemberly, but that didn’t stop us from writing about it.  Downtown Abbey is a mini series that focused around the Crawley family in Downton Abbey… a fictional English town. 

The show starts off with the sinking of the Titanic…and the heirs to the Crawley estate go down with it.  The family was pretty bummed because the estate was then left to a family unknown…a third cousin who was (gasp) a working middle-class attorney.  The family schemed to throw their eldest daughter at him in order for her to keep her fortune and estate intact, which blew up in their faces when she told him off and wanted nothing to do with them.  Who knows if she’ll choose him in the end….. because season 1 has ended and season 2 has not begun filming yet.

The set and the clothing were amazing.  I would say the clothing was as interesting as on the show, Mad Men.  I kept thinking Rose DeWitt should have showed up for tea at any moment.  It didn’t hurt that the writing and acting were great as well.  The plot has a little something for everyone… love triangles, family drama, political unrest, and people overcoming great odds to make their lives better.

I’m such a nerd for these types of shows.  I was giddy as a school girl when Lost in Austen came out, so when Leslie told me about this new hit British mini-series, I was sold before I even knew anything about it.  Not only am I a fan of the double storyline of both the rich Crawley family as well as the staff that works so hard to keep the house running smoothly, but I also really enjoyed the scenery as well.  The house itself is astounding.  I can’t believe a place like that really exists.  The town is also really charming, and you get a good glimpse of that throughout the show.  I love the mix of fiction with real life events.  The automobile was still uncommon and when a telephone was installed in the house, people didn’t know what to make of it.  Even a swivel chair was something to marvel at.  As season 1 wound down, England entered the War (World War 1), so we’ll be seeing a big change in everyone’s lives in the next installment.

I definitely think this is a show worth watching, and if you are nerdy like me, you would want to see some of the sites where it was filmed.

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